Frank S. Meyer: The Fusionist as Libertarian Manqu

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published in Modern
Age in 1981 and then as an Occasional Paper in 1984 by the
Center for Libertarian Studies.

Until a few
years ago, the conservative spectrum could be comfortably sundered
into the "traditionalists" at one pole, the "libertarians"
at the other, and the "fusionists" as either judicious
synthesizers or muddled moderates (depending on one’s point of
view) in between. The traditionalists were, I contend, in favor
of state-coerced morality; the libertarians were allegedly in
favor of liberty but soft on virtue; the fusionists — at least
from their own perspective — combined the best of both poles by
favoring tradition and morality on the one hand, but freedom of
choice and individual rights on the other.

Now, however,
it is impossible to sustain these neat classifications. In the
first place, the varieties of conservative thought and policy
have greatly expanded and diversified in recent years, so that
the familiar triad can scarcely suffice any longer. It is difficult
to figure out, for example, what the ideologies of the Rev. Jerry
Falwell, the late Frank S. Meyer, M.E. Bradford, Harry Jaffa,
Donald Atwell Zoll, Russell Kirk, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Jude
Wanniski have in common; the venerable triad is scarcely enough
to encompass them all. Secondly, the libertarians have broken
off to form their own movement, and the characterization of them
as devoid of concern for morality is distorted and oversimplified,
to say the least.

the fusionists used to maintain that, while their success was
far from assured among conservative intellectuals, at least the
conservative masses were fusionists to the core. But the burgeoning
of the Moral Majority and allied movements have at least called
this into question.

I propose
in this essay to examine conservatism by using as a fulcrum an
analysis of the views of the leading conservative fusionist, Frank
S. Meyer.

The conceptual
chaos of conservatism may be traced back to its origins: a reaction
against the New Deal. Since modern conservatism emerged in response
to the particular leap into statism of the 1930s and 1940s, it
necessarily took on the features of any "popular front":
that is, defined more by what it opposed than what it stood for.
As a result, conservatism came to include a congeries of opponents
of the New Deal, who had little positive in common. If we wish
to inquire what all of these groups had in common, beyond sheer
hatred of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, I can think of only one
theme linking them all: opposition to egalitarianism, to compulsory
levelling by use of state power; beyond that, conservatism is
Chaos and Old Night. Even negative reaction to the New Deal no
longer suffices for anything like a coherent stance, since not
only is there a problem of which aspects of the New Deal
to focus on, but also whether the post-New Deal system should
remain in place and be subject only to marginal adjustment — that
is, whether conservatism should be a holding operation — or whether
the system should be repealed in toto.


At the heart
of the dispute between the traditionalists and the libertarians
is the question of freedom and virtue: Should virtuous action
(however we define it) be compelled, or should it be left up to
the free and voluntary choice of the individual? Here only two
answers are possible; any fusionist attempt to find a Third Way,
a synthesis of the two, would simply be impossible and violate
the law of the excluded middle.

In fact,
Frank Meyer was, on this crucial issue, squarely in the libertarian
camp. In my view, his most important contribution to conservatism
was his emphasis that to be virtuous in any meaningful sense,
a man’s action must be free. It is not simply that freedom and
virtue are both important, and that one hopes that freedom of
choice will lead to virtuous actions. The point is more forceful:
no action can be virtuous unless it is freely chosen.

for a moment, that we define a virtuous act as bowing in the direction
of Mecca every day at sunset. We attempt to persuade everyone
to perform this act. But suppose that instead of relying on voluntary
conviction we employ a vast number of police to break into everyone’s
home and see to it that every day they are pushed down to the
floor in the direction of Mecca. No doubt by taking such measures
we will increase the number of people bowing toward Mecca. But
by forcing them to do so, we are taking them out of the realm
of action and into mere motion, and we are depriving all these
coerced persons of the very possibility of acting morally. By
attempting to compel virtue, we eliminate its possibility. For
by compelling everyone to bow to Mecca, we are preventing people
from doing so out of freely adopted conviction. To be moral, an
act must be free.

Frank Meyer
put it eloquently in his In
Defense of Freedom

. . freedom can exist at no lesser price than the danger of
damnation; and if freedom is indeed the essence of man’s being,
that which distinguishes him from the beasts, he must be free
to choose his worst as well as his best end. Unless he can choose
his worst, he cannot choose his best.

And again:

moral and spiritual perfection can only be pursued by finite men
through a series of choices, in which every moment is a new beginning;
and freedom which makes those choices possible is itself a condition
without which the moral and spiritual ends would be meaningless.
If this were not so, if such ends could be achieved without the
continuing exercise of freedom, then moral and spiritual perfection
could be taught by rote and enforced by discipline — and every
man of good will would be a saint. Freedom is therefore an integral
aspect of the highest end. [1]

in short, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the
achievement of virtue. With Lord Acton, we may say that freedom
is the highest political end; in that subset of ethical
principle that deals with the legitimacy of the use of violence
between men, the libertarian — as well as the fusionist Meyer
— position holds that violence must be strictly limited to defending
the freedom of individuals, their rights to person and property,
against violent interference by others.

There is,
then, nothing synthesizing about the "fusionist" position
on this vital point; it is libertarian, period.

There is
an odd aspect of the statist position on the enforcement of virtue
that has gone unnoticed. It is bad enough, from the libertarian
perspective, that the non-libertarian conservatives (along with
all other breeds of statists) are eager to enforce compulsory
virtue; but which group of men do they pick to do the enforcing?
Which group in society are to be the guardians of virtue, the
ones who define and enforce their vision of what virtue is supposed
to be? None other, I would say, than the state apparatus, the
social instrument of legalized violence. Now, even if we concede
legitimate functions to the policeman, the soldier, the jailer,
it is a peculiar vision that would entrust the guardianship of
morality to a social group whose historical record for moral behavior
is hardly encouraging. [2] Why should the sort of persons
who are good at, and will therefore tend to exercise, the arts
of shooting, gouging, and stomping, be the same persons we would
want to select as our keepers of the moral flame? Hayek’s brilliant
chapter on "Why the Worst Get to the Top" applies not
only to totalitarianism, but, in a lesser degree to be sure, to
any attempts to enforce morality by means of the state:

While we
are likely to think that, since the desire for a collective system
springs from high moral motives, such a system must be the breeding-ground
for the highest virtues, there is, in fact, no reason why any
system should enhance those attitudes which serve the purpose
for which it was designed. The ruling moral views will depend
partly on qualities that will lead individuals to success in a
collectivist or totalitarian system and partly on the requirements
of the totalitarian machinery. [3]

It would
seem far better, then, to entrust the guardianship of moral principles
to organized bootblacks than to the professional wielders of violence
who constitute the state apparatus.

If the state
is to be the guardian and enforcer of morality, it follows that
it should be the inculcator of moral principles as well. Among
traditionalist conservatives, Walter Berns has been particularly
dedicated to the idea of the nation-state as moulding and controlling
the education of the youth, even going so far as to laud the work
of Horace Mann. Meyer, on the other hand, was never more passionate
in his libertarianism than when contemplating state education
and the public school system — that mighty engine for the inculcation
of "civic virtue." The responsibility for educating
the young rests properly with the parent, the family, and not
with the state.


If the fusionist
position is simply the libertarian position on freedom-and-virtue,
then what of the fusionist critique of libertarianism: that it
ignores virtue altogether in the pursuit of freedom (or, at least,
ignores virtue insofar as it goes beyond freedom itself)? Much
of this critique rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of what
libertarianism is all about. Thus, Professor John P. East speaks
of the traditionalist concern about contemporary libertarianism
(which he, as a fusionist, seems to share): "of taking a
valid point, in this case the importance of the individual and
his rights, and elevating it to the first principle of life with
all other considerations excluded".*
Even Frank Meyer, uncharacteristically and in the heat of the
ideological fray, identified libertarianism as a "libertine
impulse [which] . . . raises the freedom of the individual . .
. to the status of an absolute end." [4] But this is an absurd straw-man. Only an imbecile could ever
hold that freedom is the highest or indeed the only principle
or end of life. Freedom is necessary to, and integral with, the
achievement of any of man’s ends. The libertarian agrees completely
with Acton and with Meyer himself that freedom is the highest
political end, not the highest end of man per se; indeed,
it would be difficult to render such a position in any sense meaningful
or coherent.

The confusion
here, and the basic problem with conservatives’ understanding
of libertarianism, is that libertarianism per se does not offer
a comprehensive way of life or system of ethics, as do, say, conservatism
and Marxism. This does not mean in any sense that I am personally
opposed to a comprehensive ethical system; quite the contrary.
It simply means that libertarianism is strictly a political
philosophy, confined to what the use of violence should be in
social life. (As I have written above, libertarianism maintains
that violence should be strictly limited to the defense of the
rights of person and property against violent intervention.) Libertarianism
does not talk about virtue in general (apart from the virtue of
maintaining liberty), simply because it is not equipped to do
so. As Professor Tibor Machan has pointed out, libertarianism
is a "political doctrine . . . a claim as to what is permissible
for human beings to do toward each other by means of the aid of
force or its threat, nothing more".*

This does
not mean that individual libertarians are unconcerned with moral
principles or with broader philosophical issues. As a political
theory, libertarianism is a coalition of adherents from all manner
of philosophic (or non-philosophic) positions including emotivism,
hedonism, Kantian a priorism, and many others. My
own position grounds libertarianism on a natural rights theory
embedded in a wider system of Aristotelian-Lockean natural law
and a realist ontology and metaphysics. [5] But although those of us taking this position
believe that it only provides a satisfactory groundwork and basis
for individual liberty, this is an argument within the libertarian
camp about the proper basis and grounding of libertarianism rather
than about the doctrine itself.

More characteristic
of Meyer was his identification of the libertarian pole of conservatism,
not with liberty as the only goal for man, but with classical
liberalism. Nineteenth-century liberalism rested its defense of
liberty not on natural rights or moral principle, but on social
utility and — in the case of the classical economists — economic
efficiency. The classical liberal defense of liberty tended to
be based not on the perception of freedom as essential to the
true nature of man, but on universal ignorance of the truth. In
some cases the approach is taken that knowledge of ethical truth
would necessarily require coercion, so that freedom can only rest
on the impossibility of knowing what virtuous action might be.
In this way the classical liberal, or moral "libertine,"
agrees from the other side of the coin with the traditionalists:
they acknowledge that if we only knew what the good might be we
would have to enforce it upon everyone. [6]

Meyer’s strictures
against the utilitarian classical liberals were sound and well
taken. As he put it, nineteenth-century liberalism "stood
for individual freedom, but its utilitarian philosophical attitude
denied the validity of moral ends firmly based on the constitution
of being. Thereby, with this denial of an ultimate sanction for
the inviolability of the person, liberalism destroyed the very
foundations of its defense of the person as primary in political
and social matters." [7] Meyer’s mistake was in thinking that he was thereby indicting
libertarianism per se when he was really attacking the classical
liberal world-view underlying the underpinning for its own particular
libertarian position. As Machan points out, "Classical liberalism
may properly be regarded as far more than a political theory such
as libertarianism, since it is philosophically broader, involving
ideas about the nature of man, God, value, science, etc. Although
libertarianism may indeed be defensible from a very specific philosophical
perspective, it is not itself that perspective".*

Thus, Frank
Meyer’s strictures against libertarianism for neglecting virtue
do not properly apply against libertarianism per se, since qua
libertarianism it does not attempt to offer any theory except
a political one; it is not competent to provide a general theory
of ethics. His criticisms do properly apply to the broader
ethical outlook of the utilitarian-emotivist-hedonic wing of libertarians,
but not to the philosophy of the Aristotelian-Lockean natural
rights wing. In other words, although he failed to realize it,
Frank Meyer was writing, not as a fusionist attacking libertarianism,
but as a natural law-natural rights libertarian attacking the
philosophic perspective of the utilitarian-hedonic libertarians.
In short, Meyer really wrote from within the libertarian perspective.

The utilitarian
strain is particularly strong, in contemporary America, among
the Chicago School wing of free-market economics: Milton Friedman,
James Buchanan, Gordon Tullock, Ronald Coase, Harold Demsetz,
et al. In recent years, the assault of utilitarian "efficiency"
upon ethics has reached almost grotesque proportions in the Chicago
School economic theory of law advanced by Professor Richard Posner
and his disciples. The Posnerites deny that law should have (or
does have) anything to do with ethical principles; instead, the
question of who should be considered a tort-feasor or liable for
invading property rights should be decided purely on the basis
of social "efficiency." Property rights themselves,
according to the Chicagoites, should be allocated on the basis,
not of justice, but of alleged efficiency considerations. [8] Indeed, some of the Chicagoite ventures, e.g.
on economic analysis of sex and marriage, read like bizarre parodies
of economics run riot, the sort of caricatures of economists in
which Dickens was fond of indulging.


For traditionalists
the central object of concern and of imputed rights or obligations
is the "community"; for libertarians it is the individual.
For libertarians, communities are simply voluntary groupings of
individuals, with no independent rights or powers of their own.
The unit of analysis, the only entity that thinks, values, makes
choices, is the individual. Again, there is no middle ground here;
and, again, Frank Meyer’s "fusionism" is squarely in
the libertarian camp. Meyer begins his magnum opus with
methodological individualism; only individuals exist, and "society"
is only an abstraction for a set of relations between them. A
crucial error of twentieth-century thought, as Meyer points out,
is that "the set of relationships between man itself constitutes
a real entity — an organism, as it were — called ‘society,’ with
a life and with moral duties and rights of its own. This hypostatization
of the sum of relations between men, this calling into being of
an organism as the value-center of political theory, is the essential
note of the doctrines which underlie and inspire every powerful
political movement of the 20th century . . ."

So far, so
good, and most conservatives as well as libertarians would agree.
But then Meyer applies this analysis fully to the traditionalists’
favored concept of "community":

For "community"
(except as it is freely created by free individual persons), community
conceived as a principle of social order prior and superior to
the individual person, can justify any oppression of individual
persons so long as it is carried out in the name of "community"
or society or of its agent, the state.

Meyer goes
on to warn that this
is the principle of collectivism; and it remains the principle
of collectivism even though the New Conservatives who speak of
"community" would prefer a congeries of communities
. . . to the totalizing and equalizing national or international
community which is the goal of the collectivists. This is to their
credit. . . . But what the New Conservatives will not see is that
there are no solid grounds on which the kind of "community"
they propose as the end towards which social existence should
be ordered can be defended against the kind of "community"
the collectivists propose. . . . Caught within the pattern of
concepts inherited from classical political theory, they [the
New Conservatives] cannot free themselves from the doctrine that
men find their true being only as organic parts of a social entity,
from which and in terms of which their lives take value. Hence
the New Conservatives cannot effectively combat the essential
political error of collectivist liberalism: its elevation of corporate
society, and the state which stands as the enforcing agency of
corporate society, to the level of final political ends.

state and ‘plurality of communities,’" Meyer concludes, "do
not constitute an antithesis; rather they are variants . . . of
the same denial of the primary value, on this earth, of the individual
person." [12]

The only
genuine community among men, Meyer goes on to say, is the result
of free and voluntary individual interactions, not of the aridity
and despotism of state-imposed "community." The problems
which traditionalists like Kirk and Nisbet ascribe to "loss
of community," Meyer points out, really stem from "an
excess of state-enforced community." [13] In contrast, Meyer eloquently holds up associations
of free persons:

To assert
the freedom and independence of the individual person implies
no denial of the value of mutuality, of association and common
action between persons. It only denies the value of coerced association.
When men are free, they will of course form among themselves a
multitude of associations to fulfill common purposes when common
purposes exist. The potential relationships between one man and
other men are multifarious; but they are relationships between
independent, conscious, self-acting beings. They are not the interactions
of cells of a larger organism. When they are voluntary, freely
chosen to fulfill the mutual needs of independent beings, they
are fruitful and indeed essential. But . . . each man will find,
as a free being, the relationships congenial to his specific needs. [14]

We conclude
that, in this crucial area of political thought as well, Frank
Meyer was not a "fusionist" but quite simply a trenchant
individualist and libertarian. Always he championed the primacy
of the individual, of his rights and liberty, as against all social
institutions. Cooperation between men was fine, provided that
it be free and voluntary; any coercion is a mockery of genuine
community, and the state is particularly menacing whenever it
goes beyond the use of force to guard individual rights against
the coercion of others. This is no "third way," but
simply libertarianism.


In choosing
political or social positions, two alternatives have been offered:
custom or tradition on the one hand, the use of reason to discern
natural laws and rights on the other; in short, tradition, or
the use of reason to discern abstract principles on which to stand
one’s ground outside the customs of time and place. Here, too,
is a profound difference between traditionalist and libertarian.
The traditionalist is at bottom an empiricist, distrusting rational
abstraction and principle, and wrapping himself in the custom
of his particular society. The libertarian, as Lord Acton stated,
"wishes for what ought to be, irrespective of what is."
Or, as Gertrude Himmelfarb has summed up Acton’s viewpoint, "the
past was allowed no authority except as it happened to conform
to morality."

Here again,
Meyer comes down basically on the libertarian side. Arguing against
the traditionalists, he points out that there are many traditions;
and how but by the use of reason can we decide between them? Time
can hallow evil as well as good; it is no accident that the unreconstructed
Stalinists in Russia are now dubbed the "conservatives."
Surely they are, in the traditionalist sense. But if we are stuck
within tradition, whatever it may happen to be, how do we know
whether it is good, indifferent, or evil? Only principle can judge,
can decide between, traditions; and reason is our key to the discovery
of principle. Meyer puts it succinctly:

both the prevailing mode of thought and the New Conservative criticism,
which are, each in its own way, appeals to experience, I propose
the claims of reason and the claims of the tradition of reason.
I do not assume that reason is the sole possession of a single
living generation, or of any man in any generation. I do assume
that it is the active quality whereby men (starting with a due
respect for the fundamental moral knowledge of ends and values
incorporated in tradition) have the power to distinguish what
ought to be from what is, the ideal from the dictates of power.
Upon these assumptions, I shall attempt to reestablish, in contemporary
contexts, principles drawn from the nature of man. . . .

And again:

. . there is a higher sanction than prescription and tradition;
there are standards of truth and good by which men must make their
ultimate judgment of ideas and institutions; in which case, reason,
operating against the background of tradition, is the faculty
upon which they must depend in making that judgment. . . . To
recognize that there is a need to distinguish between traditions,
to choose between the good and the evil in tradition, requires
recognition of the preeminent role (not, lest I be misunderstood,
the sole role) of reason in distinguishing among the possibilities
which have been open to men since the serpent tempted Eve. . .
. But this is exactly what the New Conservatives refuse to recognize.
The refusal to recognize the role of reason, the refusal to acknowledge
that, in the immense flow of tradition, there are in fact diverse
elements that must be distinguished on a principled basis . .
. is a central attribute of New Conservative thought. It is this
which separates the New Conservatism from the conservatism of
principle. . . . [17]

While I contend
that Meyer’s position is essentially libertarian, he evidently
waffles in places in an uncharacteristically murky manner. If
reason is needed to decide between traditions, to judge good and
evil, in what sense does reason not have the "sole"
role here? In other places, Meyer, with evident inconsistency,
speaks of tradition as properly a "guide and governor of
reason," or of reason operating "within tradition."
Here, Meyer is trying desperately to establish a third, fusionist
way between libertarianism and traditionalism, but at the price
of inner contradiction and theoretical confusion. If reason is
indispensable to judge good and evil and to decide between traditions,
then obviously it cannot operate within tradition. For
either reason is the ultimate arbiter, or tradition is; it is
impossible to have it both ways. Fusionism has ineluctably run
afoul of the law of the excluded middle (the product of reason,
I might note).

Can we make
any sense at all of Meyer’s vague references to the proper role
of tradition? Perhaps there is a clue in the clause, "starting
with a due respect for the fundamental moral knowledge of ends
and values incorporated in tradition." Perhaps this simply
means that, if we wish to learn moral truth, we had better begin
by finding out what the theorists of the present and past have
had to say about it. This is not placing tradition above reason;
it is simply employing common sense. If one wants to learn anything
about the world, it saves time and energy, and adds a great number
of insights, to say the least, to learn what has been written
and thought on the subject, rather than each individual’s attempting
to spin out all knowledge from scratch. If Meyer or anyone else
should think that the libertarian position is like Swift’s spider,
to spin everything out of one’s head a priori without reference
to thought of the past or present, then this would be only a bizarre
caricature. Libertarians, one would hope, are intelligent human
beings, and not solipsistic cretins.

Are there
any other obeisances that libertarians may properly make to tradition?
Simply to say that, in life, not all questions are matters
of moral principle. There are numerous areas of life where people
live by habit and custom, where the custom can neither be called
moral or immoral, and where pursuit of custom eases the tensions
of social life and makes for a more comfortable and harmonious
society. It would be a false and perverted rationalism to say
that any custom which cannot be proven on some other ground to
be "rational" must go by the board. We can then conclude
as follows: (a) that custom must be voluntarily upheld and not
enforced by coercion; and (b) that people would be well advised
(although not forced) to begin with a presumption in favor of
custom, other things being equal. In a world, for example, where
every man takes off his hat in the presence of ladies, an individual
should be free not to do so, but at the risk of being generally
judged a boor. If, on the other hand, this person’s constitution
is such that he would be likely to suffer a bad cold by exposing
his pate, then we have here a higher moral consideration overriding
the social harmonies of custom.

to Frank Meyer, I still believe that the basic thrust of his fusionism
in this dispute, as incoherent as it ultimately may be, is libertarian.
Reason turns out to be decisive, and it seems to me that the bows
to tradition are more ceremonial than substantive. I suspect,
without being able to prove it, that Meyer was bowing here to
what he deeply felt to be the exigencies of organizing a conservative
movement which would include traditionalists, libertarians, fusionists.
In short, that in this as in some other instances, Meyer was writing
with movement rather than strictly intellectual exigencies in

Meyer has
a sensitive discussion of Burke which I think is relevant here.
In discussing the ambiguities in Burke’s thought between principle
and prescription — the very problem here under discussion — he
at one point explains the prescriptive side as emanating from
Burke the statesman. The New Conservative disciples of Burke,
Meyer points out, "are not statesmen like Burke; the prudential
choice between immediate practical alternatives, which is the
proper task of the statesman, leads in the scholar, the political
theorist, to a theoretical impasse." [18]

I submit
that, on this particular issue, Meyer was writing as a statesman
instead of a political theorist. [19]

Another reason
that I believe Meyer to be at heart a libertarian on this issue
of principle vs. tradition is the stance he took on the related
question of radical change vs. maintenance of the status quo.
For as the post-New Deal system becomes ensconced in American
life, many conservatives have increasingly become content to retain
that system and simply to tinker with marginal reform. In a sense
as good traditionalists, they aspire only to preserve the essential
status quo and to keep the society from becoming more collectivist
and more egalitarian than it already is. But Frank Meyer would
have none of this. Until the end of his life he insisted on pursuing
the unswerving goal of repealing the New Deal system root and
branch, in fact, to repeal most of the accretions of statism in
American life since the Civil War. Meyer’s famous bitter critiques
of Abraham Lincoln were not simply exercises in antiquarian disputation,
nor of course were they defenses of racism and slavery. [20] Meyer saw clearly that the
changes Lincoln wrought in American society were the decisive
shift toward the centralizing and despotic nation-state, changes
that were built upon by the Progressive era, by Woodrow Wilson,
and finally by the New Deal. To Meyer, the goal of a truly principled
conservative movement was to repeal all that, and to establish
a just polity.

But this
means that Meyer was truly a radical conservative, that is, someone
who desired root and systematic change; he was in radical opposition
to the statist status quo. Hence he took his stand, once again,
with the libertarians, who are also principled radicals, and with
much the same principles.


Another critical
dispute between traditionalists and libertarians is over the role
and the nature of order. To the traditionalist, order is the overriding
consideration, and order can only be achieved by a massive imposition
of state coercion. To the traditionalist, liberty is arrant chaos
and disorder, and the libertarian is someone who wishes to sacrifice
order on the altar of liberty. The libertarian, on the contrary,
has a diametrically opposed view. To him, the only genuine order
among men proceeds out of free and voluntary interaction: a lasting
order that emerges out of liberty rather than by suppressing it.
With Proudhon, the libertarian hails Liberty as the "Mother,
not the Daughter of Order." In this way, the libertarian
sees the harmonious interaction of free people as akin to the
harmonious interaction of natural entities that is summed up as
"natural law."

State coercion,
on the other hand, is viewed by the libertarian as a pseudo-order
which actually results in disorder and chaos. State-imposed order
is "artificial" and destructive of the harmony provided
by following the natural order. Economic science has long shown
that individuals, pursuing their own interests in the marketplace,
will benefit everyone. The free market has been shown to be the
only genuine economic order, while state coercion hampering that
market only subverts genuine order and causes dislocation, general
impoverishment and, eventually, economic chaos. Moreover, one
of our most distinguished free-market economists, F.A. Hayek,
has extended the concept of what he has trenchantly termed "spontaneous
order" to include many other activities than the economic
sphere. [21] Hayek has pointed out that the evolution of human language
itself was not imposed by coercion from above but emerged from
the free and voluntary interaction of individual persons. To use
a noted phrase of Hayek’s, language, the origin of money, and
the market itself were products or byproducts of human action,
but not of human design.

An eloquent
statement of the libertarian view of order was given [to] us by

A great part
of that order which reigns among mankind is not the effect of
government. It had its origin in the principles of society and
the natural constitution of man. It existed prior to government,
and would exist if the formality of government was abolished.
The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon
man, and all parts of a civilized community upon each other, create
that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder,
the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and
every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from
the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their
concerns, and forms their laws; and the laws which common usage
ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government.
In fine, society performs for itself almost every thing which
is ascribed to government. [22]

As to Frank
Meyer, it is clear throughout his work that he believes in the
order of liberty rather than in state coercion. In reply to the
traditionalists, he points out that all social systems
have some sort of order, and that the relevant question,
then, is not: order or no order? but what kind of order?
The order he evidently believes in is one of freedom:
of the protection of the rights of person and property, and of
a free market economy — in short, the order of libertarianism.
Once again, "fusionism" turns out to be libertarianism
in another guise.


a fascinating problem within conservatism transcends the traditionalist-fusionist-libertarian
triad altogether, and furnishes an example of the triad’s insufficiency
in encompassing problems within conservative thought. Broadly,
this is the question of "populism" vs. "elitism,"
that is, does one pin one’s hopes for proper social change and
a just society on the mass of the public or on an elite minority?
Or, to put it another way, who is The Enemy? Which social groups
or institutions constitute the permanent menace and enemy to be
combatted and guarded against?

the traditionalists (Kirk, Viereck, Wilhelmsen, et al.) could
be placed squarely in the elitist camp. The masses were The Enemy,
as I see their views, and a strong state and repressive institutions
headed by the state were needed to keep the masses in check. The
result was an inherent pessimism about the future. For, since
the late nineteenth century, the masses have voted, and therefore
the conservative cause has seemed ineluctably doomed.

on the other hand, tended to be far more populist. To libertarians,
the masses are not The Enemy. The Enemy, in the dramatic terms
of Spencer and Nock, is the state. This does not mean that libertarians
navely believe that the masses are necessarily wise or good.
It is simply that the mass of the public spends most of its time
on the business of making a living; their political interests
are fitful and evanescent. At their worst, the masses may conduct
a lynching or two, but then they are back to their daily affairs.
But the state consists of full-time professionals in coercion.
It is the business of the state apparatus never to rest. So the
state, rather than the masses, is the permanent Enemy. This has
meant, in the libertarian tradition, that either the state is
to be abolished, or, if retained, that it be kept small and weighed
down with fierce restrictions and greeted by permanent social
hostility. Jefferson’s "eternal vigilance [as] the price
of liberty" was directed against the state.

But it is
not just that libertarians direct their fire against the state.
They also perceive that the masses, as well as numerous individuals,
are oppressed by the state, that the state benefits a minority
power elite at the expense of most of those it purports to help.
In recent years, as part of this analysis, economists have shown
that the poor are injured rather than helped by the welfare state.
But further, statism deeply violates the basic laws of man’s nature.
For, if the state’s interest really clashes with the majority
of the people, with their freedom, happiness and prosperity, then
education of the masses in this truth will be likely to result
eventually in libertarian victory, a victory which would replicate
and extend the partial victories of their classical liberal forebears
in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The original
correlation of traditionalist with the elite and libertarian with
populism, however, has long been swept away. Since the 1960s,
traditionalist conservatives have become increasingly pro-populist,
culminating in the current New Right. Partly, as George Nash indicates
in his history of the modern conservative movement, the shift
in attitude toward the masses reflected a change in historical
context. In the 1940s and 1950s conservatives were an embattled
minority, and so saw themselves as an eternally beleaguered group
fending off both state and mass. But as conservatives began to
grow and achieve political victories in the 1960s and 1970s, their
attitude toward the masses swung one hundred eighty degrees, and
we began to hear of a "silent majority" who knew in
their hearts that conservativism was right.
In addition, such new traditionalists as Willmoore Kendall
stressed the virtually absolute "rights" of the putative
majority of the public.

In recent
years, New Right publicist Jude Wanniski has attained the apotheosis
of populism. As with Kendall, Wanniski and New Right populism
far exceeds the libertarian bent, which is only a long-run tendency,
and which denies the majority any power to interfere with the
rights of the individual. Wanniski goes to the extent of declaring,
in some sort of Hegelian fashion, that history consists of the
masses fulfilling their will. In striking contrast to the original
traditionalists as well as to libertarians, Wanniski proclaims
that the masses never need to be educated; on the contrary, they
are all-wise. The masses, at any time in history, know all. The
task of political leadership is to articulate the wisdom of the
masses and to bring them what they want, since what they want
is always wise and right. Specifically, Wanniski sees the cunning
of history as marching inevitably toward (a) a world state, and
(b) greater and greater democracy. Democracy becomes a positive
and overriding good, in this view, because it more easily fulfills
the inevitably wise and good desires of the masses. [27]

In the face
of this ultra-populism, the libertarian position is quite modest
and commonsensical. It holds that the long-run interest of the
masses and their basic human nature, is, in reality, opposed to
statism, but this hardly guarantees instantaneous or even eventual
success. It certainly doesn’t imply the eternal wisdom of the
general public.

As far as
I know, Frank Meyer never addressed himself specifically to this
question, but I think that his basic position was close to the
libertarian one. Democracy was cogently criticized, and warned
against as a menace to liberty, but so too was the State as well
as more particular "communities." Probably Meyer, along
with most other conservatives, grew more optimistic about the
masses as conservatism gained political strength, but so far as
that goes this is both an understandable and proper response to
changing political realities. The point is that, holding the liberty
and the rights of the individual as paramount, Meyer would never
have succumbed to the adoration of the masses now so prevalent
in the conservative movement. Once again, even though the familiar
triad is not very helpful here, Meyer’s "fusionist"
position is basically libertarian.


I conclude
from a study of its founder and leading exponent that "fusionism"
does not really exist. In all the crucial aspects of political
philosophy, Frank Meyer was a libertarian. There is no triad,
but only two very different and largely antagonistic poles. In
the one area where Meyer differed substantively from the libertarian
position, reason as being "within tradition," I submit
that the attempt was so baldly fallacious that it can only be
explained as a heroic or desperate (depending on one’s point of
view) attempt to find a face-saving formula to hold both very
different parts of the conservative movement together in a unified
ideological and political movement. To use Marxian jargon, fusionism
often seems like an attempt to paper over the contradictions within
conservatism. I venture to assert that, if we were living in a
very different kind of society where there was no political strife
or movements, and political disputes were strictly confined to
political theory in the cloistered groves of academe, there would
have been no fusionism and Meyer would have acknowledged himself
as a libertarian, of the natural rights variety. In short, I believe
that fusionism is a "myth" in the Sorelian sense, an
organizing principle to hold two very disparate wings of a political
movement together and to get them to act in a unified way. Intellectually,
the concept must be judged a failure.


[1] Frank S. Meyer, In
Defense of Freedom
(Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1962), 50,

[2] For the historical record of the criminality of
rulers of state, see Pitirim A. Sorokin and Walter A. Lunden,
Power and Morality: Who Shall Guard the Guardians? (Boston:
Porter Sargent, 1959).

[3] Friedrich A. Hayek, The
Road to Serfdom
(Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
1944), 136.

*John P. East, Conservatism and Libertarianism: Vital
Complements, in Freedom and Virtue, ed. George W. Carey (Lanham,
MD: University Press of America, 1984), p. 86.

[4] Frank S. Meyer, "Libertarianism or Libertinism?,"
National Review 21 (Sept. 9, 1969): 910.

*Tibor R. Machan, Libertarianism: The Principle of Liberty,
in Freedom and Virtue, ed. George W. Carey (Lanham, MD;
University Press of America, 1984), p. 37–38.

[5] This is essentially the position of Tibor Machan,
Eric Mack, Douglas Rasmussen, Douglas den Uyl, Williamson Evers,
Randy E. Barnett, Anthony Fressola, George H. Smith, and a host
of other young libertarian political philosophers.

[6] The free market economist Milton Friedman, from
the classical liberal perspective, has explicitly taken that
very position. See Machan’s essay in this volume, "Libertarianism,"

[7] Meyer, Defense, 1–2.

*Ibid, 57

[8] Thus see Richard A. Posner, Economic
Analysis of Law
, 2nd ed. (Boston: Little Brown, 1977);
Posner, "Utilitarianism, Economics, and Legal Theory,"
Journal of Legal Studies 8 (January 1979): 103–140; Harold
B. Demsetz, "Ethics and Efficiency in Property Rights Systems,"
in Mario J. Rizzo, ed., Time,
Uncertainty, and Disequilibrium
(Lexington, Mass: Lexington
Books, 1979), 97–116. For critiques of Chicagoite Posnerism
from a rights-perspective, see Ronald M. Dworkin, "Is Wealth
a Value?" Journal of Legal Studies (March 1980):
191–226; Richard A. Epstein, "The Static Conception of
the Common Law," ibid., 253–76; Rizzo, "Law
Amid Flux: The Economics of Negligence and Strict Liability
in Tort," ibid., 291–318; Charles Fried, "The
Laws of Change: The Cunning of Reason in Moral and Legal History,"
ibid., 335–53; Gerald P. O’Driscoll, Jr., "Justice, Efficiency,
and the Economic Analysis of Law: A Comment on Fried,"
ibid., 355–66; John B. Egger, "Comment: Efficiency is Not
a Substitute for Ethics," in Rizzo, ed., op. cit,
117–26; Rizzo, "Uncertainty, Subjectivity, and the Economic
Analysis of Law," ibid., 71–90; Murray N. Rothbard,
"The Myth of Efficiency," ibid., 91–96.

[9] For an example, see Richard B. McKenzie and Gordon
Tullock, The
New World of Economics: Explorations into the Human Experience

(Homewood, Ill.: Richard D. Irwin, 1975). Actually, Wilde’s
quip about the cynic applies equally well to these Chicagoite
economists: they "who know the price of everything, and
the value of nothing."

[10] Meyer, Defense, 28.

[11] Ibid., 130–32.

[12] Ibid., 144.

[13] Ibid., 130.

[14] Ibid., 146–47. For a penetrating
critique of the worship of the polis as against individual
persons in classical political theory, see ibid., 82-87,

[15] Gertrude Himmelfarb, Lord
Acton: a Study in Conscience and Politics
University of Chicago Press, 1962), 204–05. Or, as one
philosopher has defined natural law: it "defends the rational
dignity of the human individual and his right and duty to criticize
by word and deed any existent institution or social structure
in terms of those universal moral principles which can be apprehended
by the individual intellect alone." John Wild, Plato’s
Modern Enemies and the Theory of Natural Law
University of Chicago Press, 1953), 176.

[16] Meyer, Defense, 11.

[17] Ibid., 41, 44-45.

[18] Ibid., 40.

[19] I do not write this to denigrate Frank Meyer
the man. It is certainly arguable that organizing and leading
an ideological movement may be just as admirable as constructing
an edifice of political theory. Meyer was a committed man, as
well as a theorist and scholar; he was not content only to discover
good and evil. Believing that twentieth-century man had taken
a tragically wrong road, he believed it his duty to organize
to change that road. He believed it incumbent upon him to act
on his theoretical insights.

[20] Frank S. Meyer, "Lincoln Without Rhetoric,"
National Review 17 (Aug. 24, 1965): 725; idem.,
"Again on Lincoln," National Review 18 (Jan.
25, 1966); 71, 85.

[21] See in particular F. A. Hayek, Law,
Legislation, and Liberty,

Vol. 1: Rules and Order
(Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1973). Perhaps the earliest use of the phrase "spontaneous
order," where the concept is developed much as Hayek would
do later, and applied to the diffusion of scientific knowledge,
is in Michael Polanyi, The Logic of Liberty (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1951).

[22] Thomas Paine, "Rights of Man, Part Second,"
in P. Foner, ed., The
Complete Writings of Thomas Paine

(New York: Citadel Press, 1945), 1: 357.

[23] Thus, see Meyer, Defense, 64–65.

[24] Among Chicago free-market economists, George
Stigler has come to the position that liberty is irretrievably
doomed so long as universal suffrage exists. Since the prospects
for repealing universal suffrage seem about as favorable as
for the restoration of the Stuarts, pessimism becomes inevitable.

[25] For the influence of Cato’s
and other radical English libertarians of this
stripe on the American revolutionaries, see Bernard Bailyn,
Ideological Origins of the American Revolution
Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967).

[26] George H. Nash, The
Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945

(New York: Basic Books, 1976).

[27] Jude Wanniski, The
Way the World Works
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978).
On the evidence of the book, the point of all this seems to
be specifically political: that is, to argue why a Republican
Presidential candidate who calls for tax reduction, maintenance
of government spending at the current level, and a balanced
budget is not being an irresponsible demagogue. He is not because
the masses, on the evidence of Gallup polls, etc., want all
three, and therefore they must be right. It is the task of conservative
intellectuals to find out why they are right, and it is at this
point that Wanniski brings in the deus ex machina of
the "Laffer curve," which purports to resolve these
contradictions. But in this paper we are concerned only with
the historical-theoretical underpinnings for this political

N. Rothbard (1926–1995), the founder of modern libertarianism
and the dean of the Austrian School of economics, was the author
of The
Ethics of Liberty
and For
a New Liberty
and many
other books and articles
. He was also academic vice president
of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian
Studies, and the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report

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